A Close Encounter With A Moving Rock and its Baby

The DS had told me that when she arrived in Antigua she wanted to spend at least a couple of days winding down before the stress-inducing trauma of sailing with the reckless Upstairs Skipper in the mountainous seas and storm force winds of the Caribbean (that’s how she sees it anyway). In the event, we stayed for six days before setting sail for Nevis. I had hired a car for a few days, so we toured the island, which we found quite pretty in the east but rather scrubby and untidy in the west. We also took advantage of the car to do a big provisioning shop in Jolly Harbour, and to replenish our petrol supplies for the outboard.

On several occasions by the roadside we saw rather sweet looking weasley type animals that stood on their back legs looking around, rather like a meercat. We discovered that these were mongooses which had been imported from India by the sugar planters to eat the rats that fed on the sugar canes, but mostly the mongooses ate the Antiguan Racer snakes, bringing them to near extinction (the DS and Caroline were lucky enough to see one on Green Island last year).

Much of the DS’s pleasure in sailing is in entertaining friends on board. I love it as well, but arranging to meet friends on a specific date in a specific place does impose deadlines which sometimes get in the way. Any delay caused by breakages or whatever and you find yourself hammering towards the rendezvous point at breakneck speed, missing out on all the interesting places along the way, and sometimes sailing passages in conditions that one might otherwise avoid. But, for a variety of reasons, this year for the first time ever, we had no guests joining us at all. So we had the luxury of staying in Antigua for a few days more whilst some unusually windy weather passed through.

The passage to Nevis was quite long at 53 miles and took just over 9 hours – a rather frustrating sail with the wind fluky and from right behind us. We had stopped off at Nevis last year but had not gone ashore. So this time we took the following day off and went for a guided tour round the island. Nevis has retained quite a number of the charming old plantation houses and turned them into upmarket hotels. Also, it was here that Nelson, who was stationed in Antigua, married Fanny Nisbet, the niece of the Governor. A friendly, interesting island.

Stronger winds and consequently larger seas were forecast for the next three days. The DS can cope with strongish winds if they’re from the right direction (which these would be, heading north to St Barts) but she does get nervous about big waves. So rather than sitting it out in Nevis for three days, we pressed on early the following morning in the strengthening wind but before the sea got up. It was a great sail. A beam reach in 22-26 knots of wind, creaming along at 8 ½ knots+. Consequently we covered the 48 miles in just over six hours arriving in time for lunch.

But we nearly didn’t arrive at all. Just 1 ½ miles south of Gustavia in St Barts we were rushing over the waves when the DS let out a yell and pointed into the water on our port side. There was a large, round, grey dome, like granite, with the waves cascading over it, literally inches from the side of the boat. You know how it is when you get a sudden shock. The brain processes a blistering number of thoughts in a fraction of a second. These were my thoughts:

1. It’s a rock.

2. How can it be there? We should be in completely clear water.

3. Has something gone horribly wrong with my navigation?

4. We’ve been incredibly lucky to miss this one, but there are probably others directly in our path.

5. We’re doing 8 ½ knots. If we hit a rock at that speed, it’ll rip our keel off.

6. If our keel is ripped off, we’ll sink in seconds and we will die.

7. Hold on a moment, this rock seems to have a hole in it which is spewing out spray.

8. It’s not a rock – it’s a bloody whale – and a big one.

“It’s a bloody whale – and a big one” I shouted. “Oh God” shouted the DS, “it’ll tip us over and we’ll both die”. “Don’t worry” I said “they know exactly where we are, and they won’t harm us unless it’s a mother with her calf”. It was at that point that I fleetingly saw the calf. But on a micro-second’s reflection I realised it wasn’t a calf but an enormous flipper. It was a Humpback whale. I was also thinking “If these leviathans of the deep are so bloody clever, what sort of damnfool trick does this one think it’s playing, scaring the shit out of us by surfacing so close to us I could literally have poked its eye out with a boat hook?”

In a matter of seconds it had dived down and we saw it resurface and blow about a hundred metres behind us. We were both left in a complete state of shock. I’ve had some magical encounters with whales in the past, but none this close. My legs still shake when I think of it.


Tim Barker is a sailor and occasional adventurer. Since 2004, Mina2, his Oyster 485 yacht, and he (with the Downstairs Skipper and a wonderful bunch of friends) have sailed from the Arctic to the Antarctic and many places in between. Come join their adventures and read Tim's award winning blogs and journals from the comfort of your own computer screen.

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